Los Angeles

Lee Bontecou

From 1960 to 1971, Lee Bontecou showed consistently at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, where her large-scale wall reliefs were admired by critics and collectors alike. During this period, she also had several European museum shows and was included in Documenta 3. And she was often photographed, most famously by Ugo Mulas and Hans Namuth, but also by Diane Arbus. Despite these and other sanctions, by the ’70s Bontecou decided, for reasons that are not entirely known, to stop exhibiting her work. She left Castelli, moved out of New York City, and, it turns out, kept right on working. So the retrospective that opened at the Hammer Museum in October, organized by Elizabeth A.T. Smith in association with Ann Philbin, was greatly anticipated not only because it would provide the opportunity to revisit Bontecou’s celebrated sculpture of the early and mid-’60s but also because it would reveal what, in fact, she has been doing for the last thirty-odd years. Rumors circulated that her later work—which had been seen by only a few in isolated gallery shows, mostly in Los Angeles—was very interesting. Isn’t it ironic, then, that since the show opened, so many critical responses in the press have focused on the very same early work so often praised in the past? Further, and more surprising, most criticism has continued to dismiss what to my mind are Bontecou’s other great bodies of work: the drawings and particularly the exceedingly strange sculpture of the late ’60s and early ’70s. These critics are missing the forest for the trees. While as problematizing as ever, the sculpture is astonishingly attuned to recent art; it might even be posited as a starting point in a lineage that leads to work as diverse as that of Sarah Sze and Roxy Paine.

I don’t in any way intend to demean the unparalleled power of Bontecou’s jutting wall reliefs, her most famous works. This exhibition provides an unprecedented chance to become immersed in their evolution and variations, to revel in their metaphors and their tactility. As is well known, the reliefs, made between 1959 and 1966, are built on welded steel armatures that support wire-sewn patchworks of old and soot-stained canvas. In spite of the grim references, in the most evolved reliefs, to war machines and the detritus of the military-industrial complex (some are fabricated out of army-surplus stock), they are rich with the material pleasure of deteriorated things. Like J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg, other great artists of the postwar technological society, Bontecou projects simultaneously a critique of power and an expression of its seductive beauty. While her reliefs are often hulking and aggressive, they also possess, paradoxically, wonderful handmade qualities, such as the tense little twists of bright copper wire that beautifully join the patchwork pieces.

Because Bontecou is known primarily as a sculptor, her drawings, interspersed among objects throughout the Hammer galleries, are a major revelation. Indeed, drawings seem to be among the artist’s primary occupations, their vast numbers here ranging from sheets covered with preparatory sketches to highly finished, meticulously detailed reveries. And it is in the works on paper that Bontecou’s ability to lift the observation of nature to a visionary level shines. By 1961, she was covering the drawing sheet with small graphite or soot sketches of circles—mouths with teeth, craters, gas masks, or simply black holes—that echo the voids in her reliefs. In a drawing from 1964, concentric ovoids emerge fantastically from a soot-blackened background—the forms recalling an enormous relief Bontecou made for the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center. Too large to travel to the West Coast, this piece can nonetheless be glimpsed here in other reliefs from the period, accompanied by drawings that foreground these lighter works’ resemblance to billowing sails or kites or to natural elements like shells, snails, insects, and crustaceans. One is reminded of a 1963 photograph of Bontecou in her studio on Wooster Street, in which she peers into one of several fish tanks she kept filled with crayfish, toads, salamanders, and tropical fish.

But none of this is to say that Bontecou is strictly interested in representation. To the contrary, the exhibition shows that by 1967 she was becoming all the more allusive. Donald Judd, a great fan of Bontecou’s work, wrote of it in a 1965 article (originally published in Arts Magazine and reprinted in the retrospective’s catalogue): “The image does suggest other things, but by analogy; the image is one thing among similar things.” Judd clearly respected the autonomy of Bontecou’s imagery rather than reading it as antiwar or proto-Green expression. These all-too-common readings are forced (and occasionally made too overtly by the catalogue’s essayists). Undoubtedly, Bontecou held strong views that are reflected in her work, but I would argue that the hybridization of beauty and ugliness in her work undercuts any direct polemic. Though we can observe in her mongrel flowers and gnarling fish a critique of the cold war or a salute to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the remarkable fact is that in the post-Hiroshima world, in the wake of so-called progress, Bontecou finds a type of beauty in the midst of evil.

Lucy Lippard, with her landmark 1966 show “Eccentric Abstraction,” identified a group of artists (Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and Louise Bourgeois) whose sculpture was simultaneously erotic and surreal, yet definitively abstract. Bontecou, in contrast, was by the late ’60s establishing her own version of the erotic and the surreal in hyperreal, if distorted, forms from the “real world.” This moment in Bontecou’s career was and has remained the most controversial. While most critical assessments of it have been negative, I find this “bad taste” sculpture to be kitsch and bizarre, yes, but simultaneously beautiful and hallucinatory. For me, one of the high points of the Hammer installation came in the last room, an eerie environment of sculpture and drawings bespeaking the weird depths Bontecou was plumbing by this time. Here, orange-tinged, vacuum-formed plastic flowers sporting wings and flaccid tendrils were grouped on a waist-high table while sinister-looking plastic fish, suspended by wire from the ceiling, appeared to swim by. Drawings of flowers and fish, some like botanical illustrations, others in white charcoal or colored pencil on black paper, capture the feel of a quasi-scientific nocturnal environment in a natural-history museum. The plastic objects may veer dangerously close to hobbyist models and all sorts of mass-produced decorative tchotchkes, and they only sideswipe the “new materials” movement of the time (there were many “plastic art” shows in the late ’60s), but I nonetheless find them as disturbing and powerful as anything that came before.

Furthermore, while the plastic fish and flowers are at home with the neo- Conceptualist, Duchampian, and narrative strategies that have replaced formalist criteria, they come from another place. Though they resonate with the sense of found objects and can certainly be per- ceived as allegorical omens of a world gone wrong, they are, more directly, derivatives of intense observation and an equally intense imaginative state. Like the war-addled reliefs, they are meticulously fabri- cated to project their sources. Also in the last room of the exhibition was Bontecou’s considerable output of the ’70s. This is work from the period often characterized as one of withdrawal, an assumption that Smith, in her excellent essay, neatly refutes, recounting that Bontecou taught drawing and 3-D courses at Brooklyn College from the early ’70s until her retirement in 1991. Her pedagogy seemed to focus most on encouraging students to, as she described it to me recently, “use their imaginations.” The work she herself made throughout her teaching career makes it clear that Bontecou’s own imaginative life also continued to expand.

Stepping into the final space of the Hammer installation is exhilarating. The sculpture here, much of which was begun in the ’80s and completed in the ’90s, still employs metal armatures and fabric and wire-mesh panels, but now the frames of wire and rods make for a skeletal lightness underscored by the presence of hand-formed white porcelain parts. Delicacy has replaced mass. The visitor is surrounded by amorphous winged and finned objects of different sizes, hanging from the ceiling at various heights or placed on pedestals. Associations abound. Are we in some oceanic space, or a galaxy of solar masses, or are we surrounded by a menacing swarm of insects or birds? Like the best horror-film directors, Bontecou has upped the fear quotient by instilling in her sculpture humanoid qualities as well. Is this human presence meant to evoke the artist herself? A kind of examination of the self had been there before: The voids at the centers of the ’60s wall reliefs certainly hinted at bodily orifices. A fantastic colored-pencil drawing from 1989 in which large, heavy-lidded blue eyes dominate a field of bulbous, fishlike eyes hovering amid pierced spheres might strike one as a kind of self-representation. Those eyes appear again in a fine graphite drawing done nearly a decade later, in 1997: Here, hooded by long lashes or perhaps feathers, they have taken on the sharp stare of an eagle. Of course, this is not a self-portrait; Bontecou would never draw herself. But these eyes do remind one of those of the young Bontecou in Mulas’s portrait from 1963, in which she is shown, half in shadow, peering through a circular construction in her studio, her very sober eye staring steadily into the camera.

Bontecou’s work, particularly when its full spectrum is taken into account, has commonly been deemed unassimilable into the canon of major talents. Yes, we do have to acknowledge the powerful reliefs of the ’60s and her singular status as a famous woman artist in a male-dominated art world. But with this full retrospective, a new case begs to be made. Bontecou’s work is still, thank goodness, very odd. But rather than seeming entirely anomalous, Bontecou can now be seen to fit, alongside other singular talents, into a history that once might have been called alternative but that today seems central to the development of American and European sculpture, drawing, and installation. It is interesting, for instance, to think of Bontecou in comparison to Paul Thek, who in the late ’60s was also engaged in making objects that were related to but critically distanced from the real world, works such as his “Technological Reliquaries,” a series that included fragmented human limbs made of wax and metal and encased in a Plexiglas box. One might also compare Bontecou’s fish to Thek’s Fishman, 1968, a latex cast of his own body to which cast rubber fish adhered like leeches. From Thek, one might naturally jump to Robert Gober or to Zoe Leonard’s Strange Fruit, 1992–97. Suddenly, Bontecou’s work of the late ’60s and early ’70s—allegorical, home-made, political, and completely out of keeping with contemporaneous post-Minimalist practice—seems like a logical link. This retrospective makes a strong case for Bontecou’s taking a major place in a much-needed historical reevaluation of the history of late-twentieth-century American art.

“Lee Bontecou” is on view at the UCLA Hammer Museum through Jan. 11; travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Feb. 14–May 30; and MoMA QNS, New York, July 28–Sept. 27.

Elisabeth Sussman is a curator based in New York.